After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 6 matchup with the Seahawks, passing along some observations and notes:
1. The second half started better for the Patriots' defense than it would end up finishing, with linebacker Brandon Spikes pulling Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch down for a 4-yard loss. On the play, Spikes shot through the gap where Lynch was planning to run, practically as if he knew the play was coming. It was one of a few occasions where Spikes was lightning-quick through the hole on a run play, each of which ended in a tackle for loss. In fact, it's too difficult to distinguish whether or not Spikes' tactic was part of a called blitz or what is known as a fast-read from the linebacker, in which he has a key that he is reading and following (the key could be a pulling guard, a fullback, a running back aligning in a certain set, etc.). Blitz, fast-read, or something else, the play from Spikes was solid, and he was amongst the players of note following the loss, as highlighted by colleague Mike Reiss.
2. He's known by many as a "scatback," but Patriots running back Danny Woodhead earns the tough yards, too. On a third-and-6 on the Patriots' opening drive of the half, Woodhead took a draw handoff, squirting through a hole and appearing to have no room to leg out the final two or so yards needed for a first down. But he kept his legs driving and momentum forward, however, and was eventually able to land past the first-down yard marker, extending the drive. Woodhead has been critical as a third-down weapon this year, both because of his ability as a runner and receiver, as well as his dependability to pick up blitzes and make the right play. To again note Reiss' post-game assessment, his take that Woodhead had a Kevin Faulk-esque afternoon just days after the veteran retired from the NFL was spot on.
3. Stevan Ridley finished with a season-low 34 rushing yards, averaging just 2.1 yards per carry. We knew Seattle's run defense was stingy coming in, and its physicality at the point of attack was evident throughout the afternoon. But it's not just how physical the group is, but also how aggressive and athletic it is too. On a first-and-10 halfway through the third quarter, the Patriots called for a toss sweep with Ridley to the right side. Ridley took the pitch, and though his blockers appeared to largely get to the spots they wanted to be at, across the board the Seahawks gained the upper hand in winning at the point of attack. Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant, a mountain of a man, strung tight end Rob Gronkowski out, working almost to the sidelines. That's impressive lateral agility from the big man, and he was one of a number of Seahawks players to do his job on this play. Beyond being physical and strong, the Seahawks closed from the backside throughout the day. Their backside ends and linebackers played with good discipline to not give up contain, and closed in to make tackles when they had the opportunities to. This run D is the real deal.
4. There's not much to say about Tom Brady's first interception of the afternoon, picked off by Richard Sherman, who had coverage of Deion Branch. It was a man defense principle, and Sherman was in terrific coverage of Branch. This was a situation where Brady made a poor decision to try to force a throw into a minuscule window, and left too much flight under the ball, putting it right into Sherman's basket. It was an uncharacteristic decision from Brady, who had previously not thrown an interception in 179 straight passing attempts. As for Brady's second interception, which occurred in the end zone, it's another throw that will be debated. Receiver Wes Welker looked to have a play on it, but it was one that Brady could have put in a better spot. Margin for error is virtually none in the red zone and near the goal line, and that was evident on the play. Count that one as a major missed opportunity from the Patriots.
5. Tempo, tempo, tempo. That was a talking point throughout the week, and the Patriots moved away from the lightning-fast tempo of Week 5 for most of Sunday's matchup, but did pick up the pace on their first drive of the fourth quarter. Specifically, the offense moved quick on three consecutive runs from Stevan Ridley to close the drive. Facing a third-and-2, the Patriots attempted to run Ridley around the right side of the line, off the hip of receiver Deion Branch, who was aligned in a wing formation next to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Branch absorbed the tough task of being an edge-setting blocker, and the Seahawks' fast defense bombarded the edge to bring Ridley down. This play is a microcosm of the concerns an offense faces in running up-tempo. Being able to stay in the same personnel from one play to the next keeps the pace moving fast, and a defense on its heels, but it can cut the playbook down in terms of volume of viable calls to make. Asking Branch to make that block was a tall order for the receiver.
6. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson hooked up with receiver Golden Tate for a deep throw to open a possession with just over nine minutes to play in the game, and cornerback Devin McCourty was the guilty party on the defensive side of the ball. A week ago, McCourty was flagged for not getting his head around on a play down the field, something that was discussed throughout the week. That was not the case on this play, as he ran stride-for-stride with Tate and tracked the ball with his eyes. Tate walled McCourty off and corralled the football to his chest, simply outplaying McCourty in the situation. In evaluating Tate as a college receiver prior to the 2010 NFL draft, my impression of him was that although he was pint-sized, there was no better receiver in the class during competitive catch situations (Notre Dame fans will likely recall his spectacular catch during his final season with the Irish over then-USC safety Taylor Mays, who had about six inches and 50 pounds on Tate). That showed up on Sunday, and McCourty needs to find a way to dislodge that ball when in good position.
7. The play by Tate set up the Seahawks' second touchdown of the day, a fourth-down fade from Wilson to veteran receiver Braylon Edwards. Edwards made a difficult adjustment to come back to the ball, while also touching both feet in bounds to complete the catch. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who had Edwards in coverage, was flagged for pass interference on the play, a shaky call from this estimation. Dennard pretty much did all that you could ask of him: he ran stride from stride with Edwards, did not contact him at the point of catch, and turned back to attempt to make a play on the ball. If interference occurred on the play, it was actually from Edwards, who appeared to push Dennard, opening up a window to make the catch. That's how the game goes, however, and certainly that call didn't determine the outcome. If anything, it was a positive sign from Dennard, who employed strong technique to hold his own in a mismatch of size against Edwards.
8. Left tackle Nate Solder has been very good throughout the course of the 2012 season, but he appeared to wear down towards the end of Sunday's game. It showed up most in his troubles with anchoring against oncoming power pass rushers down the stretch, as was the case on a second intentional grounding call against Tom Brady. Defensive end Chris Clemons came charging at Solder's frame, driving through him and nearly taking Brady down in the process. Brady managed to briefly escape trouble before throwing the ball away, albeit for a penalty. It appeared as though Clemons struck Solder in an off-balance position, driving through his inside shoulder and turning his frame. Later in the game, Solder would be once again driven back in his stance, actually falling over Brady and surrendering the Patriots' lone sack of the day. The Seahawks benefit from having a rotation of defensive ends to bring in throughout the game, which helps to keep the group fresh. The Patriots ran 87 offensive snaps on Sunday (includes penalties), and one has to wonder how much of a factor fatigue played in the fourth quarter.
9. Offensive guard Logan Mankins has been battling through multiple ailments recently, and looked to be really laboring towards the end of the game on Sunday. On the Patriots' penultimate offensive possession, on a second-down run, Mankins was beat across his face by Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who made a tackle on Stevan Ridley down the line. It was an uncommon play from Mankins, but it was evident in watching him move around that he was hurting. Unsurprisingly, he didn't leave the field of play, and he could well continue to play through pain in the coming weeks.
10. He admitted as much himself after the game, and safety Tavon Wilson was beat clean on the Seahawks' game-winning touchdown pass from Wilson to receiver Sidney Rice. Aligning in a two-deep shell, Wilson had the responsibility of keep everything on the left side of the field in front of him protecting against deep throws and big plays. Rice, a lanky speedster, got behind Wilson for an all-too-easy score in what was just a lack of execution from the rookie. It was the end to what was a difficult day for the Patriots' secondary, which allowed Wilson to set a career-best mark for passing with 293 yards.